The ICC Prosecutor’s investigation into the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 took a long time coming, but represents a welcome change of focus for The Hague-base court. Nika Jeiranashvili of the Open Society Georgia Foundation explains why the ICC’s investigation into Georgian situation is special.
“It represents the first time that the ICC has stepped outside Africa or that it will be the first time that the court will deal with an international conflict,” he told Justice Hub’s Janet Anderson in The Hague in a recent interview.
This piece is a write-up of their conversation and is published here as part of Justice Hub’s #MyJustice series.
Justice Hub: Why are you monitoring what is happening at the ICC?
This is the continuation of our work which started in 2008 after the war between Georgia and Russia. At that time, we helped organisations to document the crimes. We managed to bring in Alex Whiting to train organisations on how to properly do the documentation of the crimes that were committed during the August war and then compile a report and submit to the ICC. Since then we have been waiting for over 8 years for the preliminary investigation because neither Georgia nor Russia asked the court to investigate.
Justice Hub: Why do you think the ICC is the best venue to get justice for what happened during that war?
I would not say that the ICC is necessarily the best venue for that. We have actually tried the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The ECHR is actually the court that the Georgian civil society has the most experience with rather than the ICC. The ICC is actually rather new for everybody in Georgia and nobody really fully understands what it is and how it operates.
The communication with the ECHR is still ongoing but it’s the ninth year and not many developments have taken place in that regard. The government has applied to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) as well. Basically, all avenues have been explored.
Justice Hub: Do you see it as Georgia and Georgian NGOs trying to get justice against Russia?
I don’t think that we see this process as something against Russian or against South Ossetian officials. But the majority of victims that we currently represent are ethnic Georgians who basically point fingers at South Ossetian or Russian military or other officials as potential perpetrators.
There were, however, some victims who were ethnic South Ossetians that were among those whose cases we communicated to the ECHR. Actually, at that time we received a lot of criticism from the general public and from the government saying that you were almost acting like enemies of the [Georgian] state because of what we were doing.
Our vision is to help all victims no matter their ethnicity. But now the situation has changed in regard to access to South Ossetia. Access to South Ossetia is completely blocked to Georgian organisations. It is also hard for people from South Ossetia to come to Georgia to ask for help from Georgian organizations. Now, in a way, there is no option for us to help victims from South Ossetia. It’s because of the politics basically: the politics of Russia and the politics of South Ossetia. This discourages victims from participating in the proceedings.
Justice Hub: Just for the purposes of context, could you explain in a couple of lines for those who don’t know what happened in Georgia according to you?
Basically, it was a war between Georgian, South Ossetian and Russian armed forces. It seems to have been started by an exchange of fire between Georgia and South Ossetia. In the months before the war started, (in July and August 2008), there were reports about shots coming from the South Ossetian side. There were also reports of shots being fired from the Georgian side.
If I remember correctly, it was on the 5th of August when the situation became critical. I don’t know what was the reason behind it. I’ve only heard political explanations from both parties. I suppose a decision was made from the Georgian side to respond with more force. At the same time, Russia made the decision to help South Ossetia with their military saying there were Russian citizens in South Ossetia and they needed to protect them.
Justice Hub: How many people died and how many were displaced?
Around 28,000 victims have been displaced from South Ossetia and now they are living in IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camps all around Georgia. As for the death toll, I don’t remember the exact number but it is less than 2000 if I am not mistaken.
Justice Hub: The wheels of justice are turning but too slowly for some people’s expectations. Do you think that people in Georgia understand this process of justice?
Currently, people in Georgia have no information about the ongoing investigation. This is something that we are advocating for the Court to change with the establishment of a field office to start outreach activities that could help explain what’s going on and what it means.
Right now, there are discussions ongoing but only with a very small group of people who work specifically on ICC issues. But people don’t really know that this process has started. They don’t know that in January 2016 the ICC prosecutor was authorized to open (proprio motu) investigation into the situation in Georgia.
People only hear about some court in The Hague and they don’t really understand because there are a lot of courts in The Hague. People don’t really know the difference between the ICC and the court in Strasbourg. People perceive everything from a “The West v Russia” perspective so it’s very easy for them to lump the ICC, ECHR and ICJ together. That’s why a lot of explanation is needed to explain why this case is different and important. It represents the first time that the ICC has stepped outside Africa and it will also be the first time that the court will deal with an international conflict.
9 years have passed and a lot of people have lost hope that things can change. But if they hear that an investigation has been started by an international court and that individuals might be punished for what they did then the people’s expectations might grow.
Justice Hub: What would justice look like in this situation?
I would say on one hand it is probably punishing perpetrators. Of course, in practical terms, it will be very hard to punish each and every perpetrator. I think the court will try to go more for higher-level perpetrators. Again the practical concern is that it might actually be very hard for the court to arrest some perpetrators especially from South Ossetia and Russia simply because they are not cooperating and they will most likely protect their own citizens.
On the Georgian side, we have an obligation to arrest anyone indicted by the ICC and bring them to The Hague. This also raises a lot of concerns among people who say perhaps it was not a good idea to start this whole process because in the end maybe things will turn against Georgia at The Hague. But victims don’t care about politics. Victims want to see high-level perpetrators being punished. They also want to be allowed to return to their homes and to be allowed to cross the current administrative borderline because they have graveyards there where their parents are buried.
The victims really need help right now. Taking into consideration that we’re talking about a very long process, they want to see something done now. In that regard, I think the best thing to do is to direct attentions of large organisations towards addressing the immediate needs of victims. This might be basic things like water, sanitation, some income generating activities and even housing.
For me, justice would be if on the one hand you would go through ICC process and look for perpetrators and on the other hand if you would help those who have suffered the most, see what they need and then help with that.
Photo: Janet Anderson/Justice Hub